D. W. Griffith’s technologically brilliant, virulently racist film, Birth of a Nation, is the Higgs boson from which all modern Civil War cinema has evolved. In turn hailed and reviled, it is a touchstone for the erratic course the nation has followed in its attempt to become the last, best hope of mankind that Abraham Lincoln envisioned for it.
Griffith came by the Lost Cause prejudices depicted throughout the film honestly. He learned his Civil War mythology from his besotted father, a former Confederate cavalry officer, whose fortune and social position were destroyed by the war and Reconstruction. Although he had made other Civil War–themed movies, Griffith’s silent 1915 epic, based on Thomas Dixon’s vicious novel The Clansman, represented the epitome of his cinematic genius.
Viewed from a strictly technological point of view, its special effects and sweeping battle sequences are cinematic tours de force. It was the first movie to cost more than $100,000 to make, to charge $2 for a ticket, and to have a gala opening night premier. But the noxious ideology underlying its every frame makes an objective examination almost impossible today.
America in the early 20th century, however, was another country altogether. For aging white veterans on both sides, it was a time for reconciliation between old foes. Woodrow Wilson, the first Southerner elected president since 1848, said the film was like “history writ with lightning” and pointedly added “that it was all so terribly true.” Millions flocked to see it. The New York Daily News noted an “element of excitement that swept a sophisticated audience like a prairie fire in a high wind.”
But not everyone was mesmerized by the film’s grandiose sweep or its white supremacist message. For African Americans, the film reminded them that they lived in an era of pervasive racism, social segregation, political disenfranchisement and sudden violence. The NAACP organized protests in many cities, and Massachusetts Governor David I. Walsh attempted to have the movie banned in Boston for reasons of public safety. The New Republic, a liberal magazine, judged the film “aggressively vicious and defamatory” and condemned “the censors that passed it and the white race that endures it.”
David Blight, the pre-eminent historian of Civil War memory, presciently concludes that “[t]he lasting significance of this epic film is that by using powerful imagery, buttressed by enormous advertising and political endorsement, it etched a story of Reconstruction that has lasted long in America’s historical consciousness.” The work of righting the film’s enormous wrongs is ongoing.
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.